By David K.
With the first Pac-12 team, new member Utah, set to kick off in under two hours [FRIDAY MORNING UPDATE: The Utes notched the first ever win by a Pac-12 team, 27-10 over Montana State], it’s time for some last-minute Pac-12 power rankings. I’ll be breaking teams down by division this season, like most other bloggers and pundits are doing. I’ll give a brief explanation for each slot. Feel free to agree or criticize in the comments.
The final Pac-10 champion and loser of last year’s BCS title game, the Ducks return 13 starters including QB Darron Thomas and Heisman hopeful RB LaMichael James. If they can avoid distraction from the off-field troubles of the season, particularly those involving agent Willie Lyles, the Ducks look to repeat much of their success from last season, assuming of course they aren’t sidelined by NCAA sanctions before season’s end.
The other juggernaut of the Pac-12, Stanford’s only blemish last season was a loss in Eugene to the Ducks. The good news is the Cardinal get Oregon at home this season, and face a slate of teams that are unlikely to challenge them, aside from USC and perhaps Notre Dame. A key to the Cardinal’s success will be the performance of Heisman Trophy hopeful QB Andrew Luck, but they are also breaking in a new head coach this season after Jim Harbaugh left for the NFL. [P.S. BY BRENDAN: Stanford is also breaking in three new offensive linesmen.]
The Huskies rallied from a 3-6 season start to win their final 4 games of last season, including a rematch upset of Nebraska in the Dawgs’ first bowl game since 2002. The question is whether 3rd year coach Steve Sarkisian can continue to positive direction for the Huskies against another tough slate of opponents, 6 of whom had 10+ wins last season. The Huskies are breaking in a new QB, but a much improved O-Line and defense could help make up for the inexperience there. The return visit to Nebraska looms large, and the Huskies will face four of the strongest teams in the conference down the stretch (Utah, Stanford, Oregon and USC). There is little margin for error for the Huskies team hoping to return to its position as a power team in the conference and avoid a slide back into the mediocrity of the past decade.
4. Oregon State
The Beavers are one of the hardest teams to predict each year. One game they shine, the next they fizzle. They have produced some stunning upsets (just ask USC) and some inexplicable losses (just ask Washington State). Returning QB Ryan Katz and WR James Rogers will be the players to watch on an offense that returns 8 starters. On the other hand, Rogers’ past problems with injuries may limit his potential impact, and the defense is much shakier. Inexperience and size could be issues for the Beavers.
Will Jeff Tedford and the Cal bears continue to disappoint, or rebound after last year’s bowl-less season? I’m leaning towards the former. The Bears will be led by new QB Zach Maynard, who transfered from Buffalo after the 2009 season. On top of that, some changes in the offensive staff and playbook could limit the Bears versatility. Adding to the difficulty is a season played, not at home Memorial Stadium which is being renovated this year, but in San Francisco at AT&T Park, a facility they won’t even be practicing in during the week. The Bears could very likely end up in last place in the Pac-12 North by the end of the season.
6. Washington State
Cougar coach Paul Wulff may be on the hottest seat in the conference right now with an abysmal 5-32 record over the last three seasons at WSU. Anything less than a bowl berth is likely going to be the end of the line for the coach, but this could be the Cougar team to save him. QB Jeff Tuel is experienced and skilled and he has some good receivers to help him out. Washington State is helped out by a very winnable slate of games to start the season and a few more down the stretch that gives them plenty of opportunities to get the needed six wins, despite facing both Stanford and Oregon, along with newcomer Utah. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Cougs reach 6 wins and a bowl by season’s end, likely finishing above both Oregon State and Cal in the process. But until they’ve proven it on the field, they get the #6 spot.
Regardless of where the Trojans finish, they are still bowl-ineligible (and ineligible to compete in the inaugural Pac-12 title game) thanks to the idiocracy that is the NCAA, but USC is, as usual, loaded with talent. Games against Utah in week 2 and at Arizona State in week 4 could have huge impacts on the race for the title, even if the Trojan’s can’t officially win it. More good news is that the Trojans will skip regular thorn in the side Oregon State this season. The bad news is they face Oregon and Washington, two teams that they have had little success against in recent years, before closing out the season against UCLA.
Newcomer Utah will get its chance to prove it belongs and has, in my opinion, a legitimate shot at representing the Pac-12 South in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game. An ineligible USC and an ASU team being hampered by injuries provides a key opportunity for the Utes to establish a name for themselves. Getting to miss games against both Pac-12 North contenders Oregon and Stanford also plays to Utah’s advantage. A win in week two against USC in the Pac-12 opener could set the stage for a dominant season and silence Utah’s critics once and for all.
An early presumptive favorite to win the Pac-12 South crown, ASU has been hampered by a number of injuries to key players (QB Steven Threet is out for multiple concussions) and some distractions off the field, particularly those involving the always controversial Vontaze Burfict. However, all may not be lost for the Sun Devils. With USC out of the race, and UCLA and Colorado unlikely to pose a real threat, ASU need only finish ahead of Utah and Arizona to win the division crown, and could do so without a stellar record.
The Wildcats have never been to the Rose Bowl, and the road to Pasadena has gotten just a bit harder with the switch to divisions and a championship game. While they won’t have to deal with USC as a contender for the top spot this season, they do face the Trojans early on. In fact, after their cupcake opener against Northern Arizona, the Wildcats head to Oklahoma State before returning home to host Stanford and Oregon. A 1-4 start for Mike Stoops and co. is a very real, very likely possibility. The good news is it would mean very little in terms of the race for the division championship, and even with that slow a start, if the Wildcats can keep themselves motivated, can play out down the stretch against a much more winnable slate, much like the one that allowed them to climb into the top tier of the rankings last season. An experienced QB in Nick Foles is a benefit, but the offense is overall very new, especially on the line, which could limit his ability to make plays. Really, it could go any direction for the Wildcats.
Facing a seemingly do-or-die season for Slick Rick, the Bruins shook things up in the offseason with some coaching changes, including Neuheisel taking over as QB coach and hiring two new coordinators. Recently QB Kevin Prince was named the starter, a move which was not exactly met with enthusiasm, as many were hoping for star recruit Brett Hundley to take the spot. Talent-wise, the Bruins have the pieces, but it remains to be seen whether the coaching staff can inspire and utilize them to actually win games.
Good news Buffs, the Dan Hawkins era is officially over and you are no longer stuck with Texas calling all the shots. Bad news Buffs, your team is breaking in a new coach, facing a whole new slate of conference foes, and looking at a big shift in offensive style. The Buffaloes return a lot of experienced players and have a chance to prove themselves in their new conference. I’m picking them for last now as a bit of an unknown quantity with a lot of question marks, but Colorado could surprise and move up the ranks. I’d be very surprised, however to see them compete for the top of the division. Simply earning a bowl berth would be a big step in the right direction.